Health Encyclopedia

Protect Yourself Against Medical Errors

Each year, many Americans die from medical errors. Such errors can happen anywhere in the health care system. They can involve medicines, surgery, diagnosis, equipment, or lab reports. Other errors happen when health care providers and their patients have problems communicating.

Hospitals, doctors, and government agencies are working on ways to make health care safer. But there are things you can do, too. These suggestions can help you protect yourself and your family from such errors.

Take an active role

 People who are involved with their care tend to get better results.

It's crucial to ask questions of your health care providers, pharmacist, and nurses. This is especially true if something occurs that's out of the ordinary. This might be a pill that looks different from what you usually get. It might be a test you had but never found out the results.

Keep your health care provider informed

Make sure all your health care providers know about every medicine you use. This includes both prescription and over-the-counter medicines, and dietary supplements, such as vitamins and herbs. Some over-the-counter products can interact with each other or with prescription medication in harmful ways. Your health care provider can't protect you from that if he or she doesn't know everything you're taking. Also, tell your health care provider about any side effects you may be having from medication.  

Also, at least once a year, bring all of your medicines and supplements with you to your health care provider. This can help your health care provider keep your records up-to-date, which can help you get better quality care.

Allergy alert

Always keep a list with you at all times of any allergies you have. Make sure your health care provider knows about any allergies and bad reactions you’ve had to medicines. This can help avoid prescribing a medicine that can harm you.

Is it legible?

When your health care provider writes you a prescription, make sure you can read it. If you can't read your doctor's handwriting, your pharmacist might not be able to either. Many doctors have computer-generated prescriptions now.

Clear terms

Ask for information about your medicines that you can understand. Do this both when your medicines are prescribed and when you get them from your pharmacist.

Check drug, dosage

When you pick up your medicine from the pharmacy, speak up if you have questions about the directions on your medicine labels. For example, ask if 4 doses daily means taking a dose every 6 hours around the clock or just during waking hours.

Be informed and ask questions

Learn about your condition and treatments by asking your health care provider and nurse and by using other reliable sources. The more you know, the better able you'll be to track your recovery. You’ll also be able to recognize symptoms that could mean your condition is getting worse. Always ask questions when you don't understand. Keep asking until you do understand. Many times people are afraid to ask questions. Remember your health, and perhaps even your life, depend on understanding your condition, how to take care of yourself, and how to take your medications. Be your own best advocate. If you really have trouble asking questions, bring a trusted family member or friend who will ask them for you.


Medical Reviewers:

  • Fincannon, Joy, RN, MN
  • Hanrahan, Maura, MD
  • Holloway, Beth, RN, M.Ed.